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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2793

Winner’s Curse in Sri Lanka

By Tsaanee Gunasekara

"…and it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one who gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him". Plutarch (Pyrrhus)

President Mahinda Rajapakse went to Killinochchi, manifestly with one eye on the upcoming elections in the Western Province. Posters asking Colombo voters to back the UPFA in order to ‘protect the struggle that protects the country’ are ubiquitous in the city and the suburbs. For the government these are the fruits of defeating the Tigers. For the country the Rajapakse Rule has brought other, rather less beneficial, gifts. Alienated minorities, a hostile Tamil Nadu, a tattered international reputation, an economy in ruins (including an impending debt trap) form just the tip of the iceberg of the current Lankan crisis. And these manifold negatives of the Rajapakses’ total war strategy may well overtake its one massive positive – the end of the LTTE as a conventional fighting force.

The Rajapakse administration did the right thing and the wise thing when it declared a two day unilateral ceasefire in time for the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year. That one gesture did more to counter Tiger propaganda and improve the tattered image of the country than innumerable verbal and written barrages. That humanitarian pause would have been more meaningful had it been preceded by an international effort to persuade the LTTE to permit the evacuation of civilians. The LTTE is unlikely to be persuaded to let go of its final and most potent weapon, but the effort needed (and still needs) to be made by the government, in conjunction with selected members of the international community and the UN. For, the humanitarian crisis in the ‘safe zone’ is no Tiger illusion, and the government’s refusal to admit to its existence is ridiculously untenable. Truth is indeed the best propaganda; it would make far more sense for the government to acknowledge the plight of the civilians while focusing on the LTTE’s primary culpability for this tragedy though its inhumane refusal to permit these unarmed men, women and children to flee for their lives.

The two day respite from incessant gunfire, from omnipresent death and injury, would have been very welcome to the beleaguered civilians. It was obviously and manifestly unwelcome to the Tigers. The LTTE always throve in polarised situations, which could be twisted in accordance with their politico-propaganda needs. A Colombo willing to compromise or even appease, was ever an anathema to the Tiger. The last things the Tigers want at this juncture are humanitarian gestures by the regime. They would welcome a permanent ceasefire because that would give them another lease of life; in the absence of such an elixir, they would prefer an all out assault on the ‘safe zone’ by the Lankan Forces, killing and injuring tens of thousands of civilian Tamils.

Tamil Nadu, India and the US

As India enters its long election season, Sri Lanka is becoming the number one issue in Tamil Nadu and a growing headache for Delhi. Tamil Nadu accounts for 39 parliamentary seats and at the last election the Congress led UPA won 35 of these. Consequently no national party can afford to ignore Tamil Nadu in an election season, something Mr. Pirapaharan was always aware of. The wise thing for Colombo would have been to contain the LTTE but refrain from any major military action until the Indian elections ended.

This would have prevented Sri Lanka from becoming a major election issue, thereby reducing the likelihood of any strong Indian reaction. If such a policy of containment was 'impossible', military action should have been accompanied by a concerted effort to minimise civilian casualties, more humane treatment of the IDPs and a genuine attempt to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem. Instead the government insists on the fallacy of 'zero civilian casualties', imprisons the IDPs in open prisons euphemistically named 'welfare camps' and declares the non-existence of an ethnic problem. In such a context Tamil Nadu cannot but catch fire, giving ‘sleepless nights to (Indian) political parties’ as Pakistan’s Daily Times expressed it.

Jeyalalitha Jeyaram of AIADMK has come forward as the chief champion of Lankan Tamils and Chief Minister M Karunanidhi of DMK is trying desperately to upstage her. Last week the AIADMK released its election manifesto, with Sri Lanka accorded a place of honour: "Tamils should be accorded equal status with the Sinhala majority with devolution of administrative power in the Tamil-dominated provinces of Sri Lanka….. If these moves fail, then AIADMK will press for a separate state of Eelam to ensure that Tamils in the island live a life of dignity". The plight of Lankan Tamils was the number one issue raised by Ms. Jayalalitha in her speech at the rally to launch the Manifesto (attended by leaders of the constituent parties of the AIADMK led alliance, including Mr. Vaiko, who was jailed for 19 months by Chief Minister Jayalalitha for supporting the LTTE).

The response from Mr. Karunanidhi was not long in coming. He sent telegrams to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of India as well as to UPA leader Sonia Gandhi, demanding that Delhi break diplomatic relations with Colombo if the Lankan government does not agree to a ceasefire. A few hours later External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee swung into action, issuing a hard-hitting statement - an obvious response to this unfolding drama in Tamil Nadu. “Continuation of precipitate military actions leading to further civilian casualties at this time would be totally unacceptable”. The inference is clear – do not attack the ‘safe zone’ risking tens of thousands of civilians while the UPA is fighting elections and needs every vote in Tamil Nadu!

Politicians are same everywhere in the world. Just as the UPFA would do anything to win the upcoming Western Province election, the DMK would do anything to win Tamil Nadu and the UPA would do anything to win India. That is the way of the electoral world. If Sri Lanka begins an offensive now, with air and ground attacks on the ‘safe zone’, Tamil Nadu will ignite. With the AIADMK and the DMK jostling each other to win the province by using the plight of Lankan Tamils, Delhi will have no choice but to do something dramatic and substantial. The Rajapakses would be lacking in 'good sense' if they believe that an offensive can be conducted without a significant 'Indian reaction' while Indian elections are on. Incidentally Ms. Jayalalitha makes no secret of her intent of becoming the next ‘King maker’ in India. "Whoever Tamil Nadu points to only that person can become PM. Vote with that in mind", she said at her inaugural rally. Such an outcome will indeed be perilous for a Sri Lanka ruled by a Sinhala Supremacist administration which denies the very existence of an ethnic problem and thus is unlikely to come up with a political solution acceptable even to moderate Tamils.

The Americans are also turning, a predictable outcome in an Obama administration. In an unusually tough statement the US appealed for an 'immediate halt' to the fighting to enable the civilians to escape and asked the government to stop shelling the 'safe zone', permit international monitors to enter into the 'safe zone' to enable the evacuation of civilians and give aid groups and media access to IDP camps. "The Sri Lankan government, as the legitimate sovereign power, has before it an opportunity to put an end to this lengthy conflict. A durable and lasting peace will only be achieved through a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankan communities. Further killing, particularly killing of civilians, will not end the conflict and will stain any eventual peace. We urge the Sri Lankan government to employ diplomacy to permit a peaceful outcome of this conflict". The US also asked Colombo to ‘politically engage Tamils who do not espouse violence or terrorism, and develop power-sharing arrangements so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved’ (Voice of America – 16.4.2009).

Wars are not fought in vacuums. Sri Lanka cannot continue as if the world does not exist and Tamil Nadu does not matter. This is particularly so given our financial vulnerabilities. Sri Lanka is fighting a capital intensive war, using expensive hardware, and that costs money. Our friends will sell us weapons only if they think we can pay back and international sources of finance (including institutions like the IMF) are controlled not by Russia and China but by the US and the EU. This is a reality we can ignore only at our own peril.

Economic Blues

Extremism is irrational; it does not pay in the end, however beguiling it may be in the interim. The government’s extremist approach to the North-Eastern problem was accompanied by an equally irrational economic policy. The basic truth that one cannot keep on spending money one does not have was not comprehensible to a government blinded and deafened by its own hyped-up propaganda, including the miraculous properties of Mahinda Chinthana. The end result is a yawning debt trap we will not be able to avoid even if we get the IMF loan. This situation is further compounded by the criminal incompetence of the regime. According to latest media reports Sri Lanka may be compelled to pay five foreign banks around Rs. 88 billion (US$ 810 million) over the disastrous oil hedging deal. Two of the banks have sought international arbitration and if ordered to pay, Sri Lanka will face the Hobson’s Choice of either complying or facing ostracization by international investors and money markets. This money will have to be paid in foreign currency which will further exacerbate the Lankan crisis. In other words the country will have to choose between bankruptcy and knuckling down to international pressure (on both economics and politics).

Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange crisis is symbolic not only of the regime’s inane economics but also of the limits of Sinhala Supremacist ‘patriotism’. Early this year the Central Bank, under the stewardship of its unique Governor, Ajith Nivad Cabral, launched a ‘Patriotic Bond’ targeting the Sinhala Diaspora. The aim was to raise US$600 million to stave off the impending foreign exchange crisis. That effort was a monumental failure, compelling the regime to turn to the once despised IMF. Argentina in 2001 may provide us with some inkling of what awaits us if the IMF loan fails to materialise. Faced with a foreign exchange crisis - caused by IMF advice, according to many economists, including Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz - Argentinean government announced its incapacity to payback foreign loans; it also cut down government expenditure drastically, triggering off a societal crisis.

Gotabhaya Rajapakse is the Secretary Defence. He is not and never was an elected politician. His desire to finish the task of defeating the LTTE at whatever the cost not just to civilian Tamils but also to the Lankan economy is hardly remarkable. He and the hardliners would not baulk at the thought of the electoral repercussions of economic disaster either. As the Army Commander once put it, in his inimitable way, "The Sinhala nation has to sacrifice if you want to protect the country and survive….." (The Daily News – 19.7.2008). Any Sinhalese who does not make that sacrifice willingly would thus be someone who does not want to protect the country, a traitor. As economic difficulties turn into political discontent, the government may find itself losing the majority support it currently enjoys in the South. In such a situation it will be compelled to use force to 'win' elections as well as to maintain 'stability' in between – a recipe for civil unrest in the South and a resurgence of separatism in the North.

- Asian Tribune -

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